Unit operation

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An ore extraction process broken into its constituent unit operations (Quincy Mine, Hancock, MI ca. 1900) LOC MI0086 QuincyMine TIF 00027aS.png
An ore extraction process broken into its constituent unit operations (Quincy Mine, Hancock, MI ca. 1900)

In chemical engineering and related fields, a unit operation is a basic step in a process. Unit operations involve a physical change or chemical transformation such as separation, crystallization, evaporation, filtration, polymerization, isomerization, and other reactions. For example, in milk processing, homogenization, pasteurization, and packaging are each unit operations which are connected to create the overall process. A process may require many unit operations to obtain the desired product from the starting materials, or feedstocks.



Historically, the different chemical industries were regarded as different industrial processes and with different principles. Arthur Dehon Little propounded the concept of "unit operations" to explain industrial chemistry processes in 1916. [1] In 1923, William H. Walker, Warren K. Lewis and William H. McAdams wrote the book The Principles of Chemical Engineering and explained that the variety of chemical industries have processes which follow the same physical laws. [2] They summed up these similar processes into unit operations. Each unit operation follows the same physical laws and may be used in all relevant chemical industries. For instance, the same engineering is required to design a mixer for either napalm or porridge, even if the use, market or manufacturers are very different. The unit operations form the fundamental principles of chemical engineering.

Chemical Engineering

Chemical engineering unit operations consist of five classes:

  1. Fluid flow processes, including fluids transportation, filtration, and solids fluidization.
  2. Heat transfer processes, including evaporation and heat exchange.
  3. Mass transfer processes, including gas absorption, distillation, extraction, adsorption, and drying.
  4. Thermodynamic processes, including gas liquefaction, and refrigeration.
  5. Mechanical processes, including solids transportation, crushing and pulverization, and screening and sieving.

Chemical engineering unit operations also fall in the following categories which involve elements from more than one class:

Furthermore, there are some unit operations which combine even these categories, such as reactive distillation and stirred tank reactors. A "pure" unit operation is a physical transport process, while a mixed chemical/physical process requires modeling both the physical transport, such as diffusion, and the chemical reaction. This is usually necessary for designing catalytic reactions, and is considered a separate discipline, termed chemical reaction engineering.

Chemical engineering unit operations and chemical engineering unit processing form the main principles of all kinds of chemical industries and are the foundation of designs of chemical plants, factories, and equipment used.

In general, unit operations are designed by writing down the balances for the transported quantity for each elementary component (which may be infinitesimal) in the form of equations, and solving the equations for the design parameters, then selecting an optimal solution out of the several possible and then designing the physical equipment. For instance, distillation in a plate column is analyzed by writing down the mass balances for each plate, wherein the known vapor-liquid equilibrium and efficiency, drip out and drip in comprise the total mass flows, with a sub-flow for each component. Combining a stack of these gives the system of equations for the whole column. There is a range of solutions, because a higher reflux ratio enables fewer plates, and vice versa. The engineer must then find the optimal solution with respect to acceptable volume holdup, column height and cost of construction.

See also

Related Research Articles

Distillation method of separating mixtures based on differences in volatility of components in a boiling liquid mixture

Distillation is the process of separating the components or substances from a liquid mixture by using selective boiling and condensation. Distillation may result in essentially complete separation, or it may be a partial separation that increases the concentration of selected components in the mixture. In either case, the process exploits differences in the relative volatility of the mixture's components. In industrial chemistry, distillation is a unit operation of practically universal importance, but it is a physical separation process, not a chemical reaction.

Filtration process that separates solids from fluids

Filtration is a physical, biological or chemical operation that separates solid matter and fluid from a mixture with a filter medium that has a complex structure through which only the fluid can pass. Solid particles that cannot pass through the filter medium are described as oversize and the fluid that passes through is called the filtrate. Oversize particles may form a filter cake on top of the filter and may also block the filter lattice, preventing the fluid phase from crossing the filter, known as blinding. The size of the largest particles that can successfully pass through a filter is called the effective pore size of that filter. The separation of solid and fluid is imperfect; solids will be contaminated with some fluid and filtrate will contain fine particles. Filtration occurs both in nature and in engineered systems; there are biological, geological, and industrial forms.

Mass transfer is the net movement of mass from one location, usually meaning stream, phase, fraction or component, to another. Mass transfer occurs in many processes, such as absorption, evaporation, drying, precipitation, membrane filtration, and distillation. Mass transfer is used by different scientific disciplines for different processes and mechanisms. The phrase is commonly used in engineering for physical processes that involve diffusive and convective transport of chemical species within physical systems.

Fractional distillation is the separation of a mixture into its component parts, or fractions. Chemical compounds are separated by heating them to a temperature at which one or more fractions of the mixture will vaporize. It uses distillation to fractionate. Generally the component parts have boiling points that differ by less than 25 °C (45 °F) from each other under a pressure of one atmosphere. If the difference in boiling points is greater than 25 °C, a simple distillation is typically used.

Fractionating column item used in distillation of liquid mixtures

A fractionating column is an essential item used in distillation of liquid mixtures so as to separate the mixture into its component parts, or fractions, based on the differences in volatilities. Fractionating columns are used in small scale laboratory distillations as well as for large scale industrial distillations.

Crystallization process by which a solid forms, where the atoms or molecules are highly organized into a structure

Crystallization or crystallisation is the process by which a solid forms, where the atoms or molecules are highly organized into a structure known as a crystal. Some of the ways by which crystals form are precipitating from a solution, freezing, or more rarely deposition directly from a gas. Attributes of the resulting crystal depend largely on factors such as temperature, air pressure, and in the case of liquid crystals, time of fluid evaporation.

Continuous distillation

Continuous distillation, a form of distillation, is an ongoing separation in which a mixture is continuously fed into the process and separated fractions are removed continuously as output streams. Distillation is the separation or partial separation of a liquid feed mixture into components or fractions by selective boiling and condensation. The process produces at least two output fractions. These fractions include at least one volatile distillate fraction, which has boiled and been separately captured as a vapor condensed to a liquid, and practically always a bottoms fraction, which is the least volatile residue that has not been separately captured as a condensed vapor.

Packed bed

In chemical processing, a packed bed is a hollow tube, pipe, or other vessel that is filled with a packing material. The packing can be randomly filled with small objects like Raschig rings or else it can be a specifically designed structured packing. Packed beds may also contain catalyst particles or adsorbents such as zeolite pellets, granular activated carbon, etc.

In a scientific sense, a chemical process is a method or means of somehow changing one or more chemicals or chemical compounds. Such a chemical process can occur by itself or be caused by an outside force, and involves a chemical reaction of some sort. In an "engineering" sense, a chemical process is a method intended to be used in manufacturing or on an industrial scale to change the composition of chemical(s) or material(s), usually using technology similar or related to that used in chemical plants or the chemical industry.

This is an alphabetical list of articles pertaining specifically to chemical engineering.

A theoretical plate in many separation processes is a hypothetical zone or stage in which two phases, such as the liquid and vapor phases of a substance, establish an equilibrium with each other. Such equilibrium stages may also be referred to as an equilibrium stage, ideal stage, or a theoretical tray. The performance of many separation processes depends on having series of equilibrium stages and is enhanced by providing more such stages. In other words, having more theoretical plates increases the efficiency of the separation process be it either a distillation, absorption, chromatographic, adsorption or similar process.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to chemical engineering:

Condenser (laboratory) laboratory apparatus used to condense gases into liquids

A condenser is a scientific laboratory apparatus used to condense liquids. In the laboratory, condensers are generally used in procedures involving organic liquids brought into the gaseous state through heating, with or without lowering the pressure —though applications in inorganic and other chemistry areas exist. While condensers can be applied at various scales, in the research, training, or discovery laboratory, one most often uses glassware designed to pass a vapor flow over an adjacent cooled chamber. In simplest form, such a condenser consists of a single glass tube with outside air providing cooling. A further simple form, the Liebig-type of condenser, involves concentric glass tubes, an inner one through which the hot gases pass, and an outer, "ported" chamber through which a cooling fluid passes, to reduce the gas temperature in the inner, to afford the condensation.

Reflux technique involving the condensation of vapors and the return of this condensate to the system from which it originated

Reflux is a technique involving the condensation of vapors and the return of this condensate to the system from which it originated. It is used in industrial and laboratory distillations. It is also used in chemistry to supply energy to reactions over a long period of time.

Membrane technology covers all engineering approaches for the transport of substances between two fractions with the help of permeable membranes. In general, mechanical separation processes for separating gaseous or liquid streams use membrane technology.

A separation process is a method that converts a mixture or solution of chemical substances into two or more distinct product mixtures. At least one of results of the separation is enriched in one or more of the source mixture's constituents. In some cases, a separation may fully divide the mixture into pure constituents. Separations exploit differences in chemical properties or physical properties between the constituents of a mixture.

A rising film or vertical long tube evaporator is a type of evaporator that is essentially a vertical shell and tube heat exchanger. The liquid being evaporated is fed from the bottom into long tubes and heated with steam condensing on the outside of the tube from the shell side. This is to produce steam and vapour within the tube bringing the liquid inside to a boil. The vapour produced then presses the liquid against the walls of the tubes and causes the ascending force of this liquid. As more vapour is formed, the centre of the tube will have a higher velocity which forces the remaining liquid against the tube wall forming a thin film which moves upwards. This phenomenon of the rising film gives the evaporator its name.

Industrial separation processes are technical procedures which are used in industry to separate a product from impurities or other products. The original mixture may either be a natural resource or the product of a chemical reaction.

Template:No context Aspen Plus, Aspen HYSYS, ChemCad and MATLAB, PRO are the commonly used process simulators for modeling, simulation and optimization of a distillation process in the chemical industries. Distillation is the technique of preferential separation of the more volatile component (s) from the less volatile ones in a feed followed by condensation.The vapor produced is richer in the more volatile components(s). The distribution of the component in the two phase is governed by the vapour-liquid equilibrium relationship. In practice, distillation may be carried out by either two principal methods. The first method is based on the production of vapor boiling the liquid mixture to be separated and condensing the vapors without allowing any liquid to return to the still. There is no reflux. The second method is based on the return of part of the condensate to still under such conditions that this returning liquid is brought into intimate contact with the vapors on their way to condenser.


  1. "Arther Dehon Little". Scatter Acorns That Oaks May Grow. MIT Libraries. Retrieved 13 November 2013.
  2. "Arthur D. Little, William H. Walker, and Warren K. Lewis". Science History Institute . Retrieved 20 March 2018.